As racial violence escalated and echoed throughout the United States during the summer of 2020 and “civil defense” groups formed on Facebook and appeared at demonstrations throughout the country, a gunman shot and killed two people during an overnight protest against police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The shooting took place during protests ignited by yet another police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, who was paralyzed when police shot him several times in the back — less than three minutes after arriving at the scene, where according to multiple eyewitness accounts Blake was trying to de-escalate a dispute:
Blake was shot Sunday evening as he tried to get into a small SUV with his three sons, ages 8, 5, and 3, inside, according to video and statements from his family.
A bystander’s video of the shooting that swept across social media appeared to show the officer grab Blake by the back of his shirt as he tried to get into the SUV, then shoot him seven times at point-blank range. In the video, Blake did not appear to have anything in his hands.
As protests continued in Kenosha, armed members of local militias began actively “patrolling” the streets to “protect” businesses. On the third night of unrest, a gunman shot several people, leaving at least two dead.
It is not clear whether the gunman was directly affiliated with any militia. However, the Kenosha Guard added to the already tense mix by posting calls to arms, rife with racist dog whistles, to its public Facebook page and asked “patriots” to come support them:
One post read: “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend out (sic) City tonight from the evil thugs? Nondoubt (sic) they are currently planning on the next part of the City to burn tonight!”
A later post, aimed at the Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis, read, in part:
“I ask that you do NOT have your officers tell us to go home under threat of arrest as you have done in the past. We are willing to talk to KPD and open a discussion. It is evident, that no matter how many Officers, deputies, and other law enforcement officers that are here, you will still be outnumbered.”
A Journal Sentinel reporter earlier in the evening observed a group of armed men with long guns standing guard at a dry cleaning business on Sheridan Road near 59th Street, some on the roof.
Police told them to get off the roof and a person shouted back: “Officer, this is our business.” Police did not ultimately order them off the roof.
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth confirmed that such groups were in the fray. “They’re a militia,” he told reporters. “They’re like a vigilante group.” Despite repeated requests for moderation, The Verge reported that Facebook refused to take down the militia group’s page until after the shooting:
Facebook took down Kenosha Guard’s Facebook page Wednesday morning, identifying the posts as violating community standards. But while the accounts were ultimately removed, new evidence suggests the platform had ample warning about the account before the shooting brought the group to prominence.
At least two separate Facebook users reported the account for inciting violence prior to the shooting, The Verge has learned. In each case, the group and its counter-protest event were examined by Facebook moderators and found not to be in violation of the platform’s policies.
It remains unclear whether the shooting suspect was part of that particular militia group. However, he was publicly identified as seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse from nearby Antioch, Illinois — an aspiring police officer, former police cadet, and apparent gun aficionado — who had interacted with law enforcement and militia members throughout the evening:
In recent months, pro-cop vigilantes have been showing up heavily armed at protests across the country to defend public property, often warmly received by local law enforcement.
Police interacted with the alleged gunman at various locations in Kenosha throughout the night. In one video, Rittenhouse is seen chatting with police who gave him a bottle of water and thanked him for being there.
He was also seen in the vicinity of a group of armed militiamen, who had tasked themselves with protecting a gas station from damage.
The apparent shooter, meanwhile, was seen on video walking away from the scene — his AR-style rifle clearly visible, his hands above his head. But Kenosha police who were responding to the reports of gunfire showed no interest in arresting or even questioning the man.
Instead, they asked him for directions. “Is someone injured, straight ahead?” an officer asks him via loudspeaker.
“Get out of the road,” said another.
He even approached an idling police car, going up close to the window, but then appeared to change his mind and walked away.
Brent Ford, 24, a photographer, witnessed the entire scene. “He had his hands up and they told him to get out of there, even though everyone was yelling that he was the shooter,” Ford told VICE News. “The police didn’t seem to hear or care what the crowd was saying.”
BuzzFeed dug more into the suspect’s social media presence, finding a long history of pro-gun and pro-law enforcement posts, as well as a TikTok video from a rally for United States President Donald Trump that Rittenhouse had attended several months previously:
On his now-deleted Facebook page, Rittenhouse is seen posing with an AR-15 style rifle above the words “Blue Lives Matter.” Nearly all of his public Facebook posts are related to the movement, including two posts in memory of officers who were killed in the line of duty. On Dec. 22, 2018, he asked his friends to donate to “Humanizing the Badge” a “nonprofit organization seeking to forge stronger relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”
His social media pages indicated he had access to at least two different types of guns before Tuesday. A video posted to one of his two TikTok accounts on July 21 shows him assembling what appears to be the rifle pictured in his Facebook profile image. In two videos posted Aug. 13, he and a friend are shown firing a weapon he identifies as a 12-gauge shotgun. In these videos, Rittenhouse is wearing a backward cap featuring an image of the American flag that appears to be the same hat worn by the shooter.
We have asked Facebook whether they will take another look at their policies around “civil defense” and “patriot” groups in the wake of the shootings, as well as the heavy influence of both racist rhetoric and the weaponized, anti-Semitic QAnon conspiracy theory in such groups. We also asked them about a circulating screenshot appearing to show that militia members from the Kenosha Guard were openly coordinating with Kenosha police on the social media platform. We have yet to receive a response.